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An Introduction to Cybercultures

Author: David Bell
Publisher: London, UK: Routledge, 2001
Review Published: January 2003

 REVIEW 1: Tama Leaver

Following his role as co-editor of The Cybercultures Reader (2000), David Bell has produced, less than a year later, An Introduction to Cybercultures. His book attempts to map some of the main areas of interest and critical debate within the field and, in doing so, offer some sort of coherence to a field which revels in its interdisciplinarity and blurred (or shifting) boundaries. Bell is very self-conscious about the contingent manner in which any view on cybercultures is constructed, and self-reflexively points out that this book is his introduction: though the text is mainly a guide to other work in the field, it is guided by his experience, interests, and reading position. From the outset, Bell defines cyberculture and cyberspace as interchangeable terms (with a few loose qualifications). The idea of hypertext determines both Bell’s approach to the area and how he conceives of the book. For Bell, a Reader in Cultural Studies at Staffordshire University in England, the “trick is to think about cyberspace as a product of and producer of culture simultaneously -- another hypertext moment” (2), while the book itself is similar in form since “it’s always part of academic writing to stage a primitive hypertextuality by referring across to others’ work” (4). These two quotes point to a noteworthy feature of Bell's style: he refers continually to keywords in the field such as hypertext. This strategy, perhaps overburdening terms at times, is nonetheless very effective in focussing on, and reiterating meanings for, readers unfamiliar with the vocabularies of cyberculture.

Indeed, Bell’s book does not seem to be pitched at people entrenched in the field of cybercultures (or related fields), but rather at relative newcomers. The book is marketed as a companion to The Cybercultures Reader and contains another set of ‘primitive hyperlinks’ in that each chapter ends with links to The Cybercultures Reader (referred to in the body of the text as CR), and then recommended further readings from elsewhere. The cover, strangely, is exactly the same layout and images used for The Cybercultures Reader -- a collection of pictures and diagrams of the cyborg performance artist Stelarc -- a slightly questionable decision given how much effort Bell puts into thinking about cybercultures as useful to people who are not technofetishistic, white, male, and middle-class (which aptly describes Stelarc). More importantly, though, the text is written in a conversational style, often referring to personal anecdotes and trying to explain even the most difficult concepts as understandably as possible. Although there are moments where this strategy blurs exactly what is being said by the more difficult to understand theorists, the approach works well.

Bell breaks his overview into eight clearly labelled main chapters making the book all the more accessible, and further guides the reader by reiterating the crossover of many elements between chapters. After a short introduction, chapters two and three focus on what Bell calls ‘Storying Cyberspace’ which he breaks into three main types of story: the material, the symbolic, and the experiential. The ‘material’ story begins with the standard history of the Internet through American military, academic, and then commercial structures starting with ARPA and ARPANET and moving on to Domain Name Servers (DNS), the World Wide Web (WWW), to Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), and ending with Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML). Other sites such as NASA and Xerox are added to the mix, and similar British research is mentioned but not here pursued. The second story, the symbolic, is read through cyberpunk writing (although no one other than William Gibson is mentioned except in passing) and through a nod toward popular cultural stories outside of cyberpunk’s defined area. The symbolic section is a bit rushed, covering cyberpunk in six pages and other forms of popular culture in just two. Similarly, Bell falls into the old trap of referring to cyberpunk when he really means William Gibson’s first novel Neuromancer (1984) and not much else. For convenience's sake, Bell calls the symbolic renderings of cyberspace ‘Gibsonian cyberspace,’ while the actually-experienced cyberspace is dubbed ‘Barlovian cyberspace’ after John Perry Barlow who applied Gibson’s term cyberspace to ‘actual’ computer mediated communications as they existed at that time.

The third chapter which focuses on the experienced –- Barlovian -- cyberspace begins with anecdotes from Bell’s own life (seeing his first digital clock; dealing with daily virus warnings) but then shifts into broader Western cultural experience with day-to-day cybercultures. Bell covers a range of ‘experienced’ cyberspaces such as text messaging with mobile phones, computer games (both in the older arcades and newer domestic game consoles), Computer Generated Images (CGI), other special effects in films, and even Tamagotchis and Furbies. He then turns to the cybercultural events which provoke ‘moral panic’ such as computer viruses, particularly the ‘Love Bug,’ and to the much-hyped Y2K bug. Bell emphasizes a number of things in this overview, but asserting the ‘banality’ or ordinariness of cyberculture and cyberspace is one of his key points. He does remind readers that the experiential, material, and symbolic stories of cyberspace are all intertwined, then turns his attention to how to analyze these stories.

Chapter four, ‘Cultural Studies in Cyberspace,’ offers a quick overview of approaches to cyberspace and popular theorists. The first few pages read more like a list than an analysis, covering Social Constructions of Technology (SCOT), Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), Actor-Network Theory (ANT), Science Studies, Technoscience Studies, and finally cultural studies of technology and science. The list ends with a description of Alan Sokal’s ‘hoax’ article in Social Text which was argued to have proven that none of these areas really knew their science and were thus making grand claims about fields they did not really understand. Bell argues, then, for a more informed approach in cybercultural studies and turns to Jonathon Sterne to find a model for socially and historically located, informed studies of the Internet. He then moves to describe his own ‘French lessons’ and gives an extremely brief and therefore reductive overview of Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and Virilio -- each ‘read’ through two main secondary sources. Bell does qualify that these theorists are not necessarily the only useful ones, only the most widely known. He similarly points out that Haraway is covered in following chapters and that other areas, such as psychoanalysis, would have been worth exploring were there time. Nevertheless, this chapter does feel a bit abrupt and rushed. The remaining four chapters in turn then look at community, identity, bodies, and subcultures each in relation to cybercultures.

The ‘Community and Cyberculture’ chapter provides the most historical depth of any area in the text, looking back to the late nineteenth century in order to contextualize shifting ideas of community, and is usefully informed by Bell’s other publications in this area. The shift away from village or small-town type community to big-city alienated lifestyles is seen as a process which cybercultures can transform in the emergence of online communities. Howard Rheingold’s utopian computer-as-better-village work is analyzed, but in part rejected because of a reliance on old models of community. Other approaches are suggested such as looking at online community as Bund, “a place for the expression of enthusiasms, of ferment, of unusual doings” (107). Bell concludes this chapter be pointing out that any conclusions reached about online community are partial and fluid and, most importantly, that different groups and communities have quite different experiences. (He does offer the qualification that many people are unable to access the Internet anyway, so online community is a privileged idea from the outset.)

Bell recognizes that chapters six and seven on Identities and Bodies are, at best, artificially separated, which he recommends be overcome by “a kind of primitive hypertext-like reading between these two chapters” (113). The material on cybercultural identity starts with Jeffrey Weeks and Stuart Hall and the fluidity of identity in contemporary theory, then turns to cybercultural examples, such as the homepage. The problems of identity play or ‘identity tourism’ are mentioned and then the remains of the chapter are broken into a few pages each on Race, Gender, Sexuality and Class. While all four categories are equally important in considering ideas of identity, the neatness of their separation would seem extremely forced were this not a schematic overview in an introduction. The turn to bodies in chapter seven begins with an overview of contemporary embodiment theory and then interrogates three notions: the posthuman, the cyborg and The Visible Human. The posthuman relies on N. Katherine Hayles’ work, using Hans Moravec and Stelarc to argue against. The cyborg is analyzed next, although given that Haraway’s cyborg ontology was established in the mid-eighties before Hayles’ posthuman ideas came to prominence, the ordering of these two concepts is certainly not historically focused. Haraway’s cyborg ontology is given the usual criticism and extension, ending with Nina Lykke wanting to be both a cyborg and a goddess. The Visible Human is a welcome critical addition to this chapter, as is the focus on Catherine Walby’s usually under-studied work and her important concept of ‘IatroGenic desire,’ described as the desire for programmable matter and a completely controllable, malleable, and algorithmic body which can both ordered and replicated ad infinitum.

‘Cybersubcultures’ follows, looking at those groups which have ‘subcultural’ or ‘countercultural’ uses of cyberspace, which Bell defines as “ways of using computer technologies that subvert in some way the dominant social norms or dominant formulations of what technology is for” (163). Two overlapping groups are considered: those which use technology to extend what they were already doing; and those defined through expressive relationships with technology. Bell does nod at some problems with the term subcultures, such as the seeming break with ‘parent’ or mainstream culture. The first group analyzed is fan culture, followed by conspiracy theorists. Both groups are primarily read through Henry Jenkins’ work in Textual Poachers (1992). Bell then turns to discuss MUD (Multiple User Domain) subcultures, especially in terms of their development of internal rules and etiquette. ‘Technological subcultures’ are examined, starting with cyberpunks and moving onto hackers -- although rather problematically treated as separate groups. Cyberpunks are reduced to an aesthetic grouping derived from William Gibson’s novels and journals such as Mondo 2000 while hackers are seen as, contradictorily, the “last manifestation of a cyberpunk-like ethic” (179). Andrew Ross’ work is used to posit hacking as a positive idea with social benefits. The chapter ends with the inclusion of the neo-Luddites such as the infamous ‘Unabomber,’ Theodore Kaczynski. Neo-Luddites are seen to still be a subculture intimately connected to ideas of cyberculture, albeit in an apocalyptic way. While each group is clearly described, Bell lets himself down by never questioning whether the people involved in each subculture would even identify primarily with that subculture or whether they were exclusively linked to just one subculture. I suspect the crossover between fans, cyberpunks, and hackers would be extensive, and even then the people in these groups might not primarily identify with any of these groups.

The last main chapter, ‘Researching Cybercultures,’ examines the practices of researching with cyberspace based tools, such as search engines, the use of websites in their ephemeral glory, and questions of ethics in relation to ethnography in cyberspace. Bell concludes with a ‘Manifesto for Cyberethnographers’ which highlights the participatory and partial nature of online ethnography. Bell’s brief ‘Last Words’ confess that “I am not sure . . . that I know what cyberculture is -- but I would like to think that all the time spent buried in books, browsing the web and thinking with computers has at least contributed to the task of understanding and illustrating some components of cyberculture” (205). The book concludes with a useful glossary and a guide to further reading which contains the usual critical suspects (such as Benedikt, Dery, Hayles, and Turkle), with the welcome addition of Catherine Walby’s The Visible Human Project (2000). However, Bell’s sense of discrimination in his recommended texts is challenged by his inclusion of Dani Cavallaro’s Cyberpunk and Cyberculture (2000) which has to be one of the most disappointing books on either cyberpunk or cyberculture.

While this chapter overview shows the breadth of Bell’s An Introduction to Cybercultures, the question as to the usefulness of the text remains open since each of these areas is well covered in other writing. On one hand, the book does contain a very accessible overview of each area and goes to great pains to reinforce the partiality of any conclusions reached. However, there are also a number of problems. For example, for the most part, Bell's work here displays very little historical depth. His history of computing and the internet would have been much fuller were early figures like Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace mentioned. So, too, would references to Vannevar Bush’s ‘As We May Think’ broaden the historical context as Aimee Morrison mentioned in her review of Bell’s co-edited The Cybercultures Reader. Moreover, while Bell refers to cyberpunk frequently, he does so in an unnecessarily reductive manner reducing cyberpunk and William Gibson to one text: Neuromancer. His reliance on Dani Cavallaro’s text in this regard is questionable, especially since Veronica Hollinger’s ‘Cyberpunk Deconstructions’ in the McCaffrey collection (also listed in Bell’s ‘Further Readings’) stretches the idea of cyberpunk in a more encompassing cybercultural direction than Cavallaro manages a decade later. Other more avoidable errors occur in the body of the book which reads more than anything as signs of poor editing. For example, this passage occurs while discussing Baudrillard, using The Matrix as an example: “first, as the character Nero keeps his contraband computer disks hidden in a hollowed-out copy of a Baudrillard book; and second when Nero is shown what reality really is by Mobius, who says, ‘Welcome to the desert of the real’, a term from Baudrillard’s (1983) Simulations” (77). The fall of Rome aside, editing could have missed Nero in the place of Neo, but Mobius instead of Morpheus? Similar carelessness occurs when The Cybercultures Reader is referred to as ‘Kevin Robins (in Bell and Kennedy 2000)’ when every other reference to that volume is in the shortened form CR (105).

These are minor quibbles; however, the date of publication may be more of a problem. In the aftermath of ‘September 11,’ the cybercultural landscape has shifted significantly. Issues of privacy and security have taken a much stronger place in criticism and popular discussion of cyberculture. Similarly, in the last year terms such as Google, Peer2Peer software, Napster, KaZaA, digital copyright, digital convergence and so on have become increasingly important. The ‘shelf life’ of Bell’s book, then, is similar to The Cybercultures Reader itself; recent events have dated both and these texts serve more as historical markers than overviews which are focussed on today. Despite these issues, Bell’s Introduction is well structured and self-contained in its chapters, so it is still quite useful at an introductory, undergraduate level. However, recent developments suggest that An Introduction to Cybercultures (and The Cybercultures Reader) will soon need second updated editions to stay in tune with the contemporary landscape of our cybercultural world.

Bell, David, and Kennedy, Barbara M. The Cybercultures Reader. London & New York: Routledge, 2000.

Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson. London and New Brunswick: Athlone Press, 2000.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. 1984; London: Voyager, 1995.

Hollinger, Veronica. "Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism," Mosaic, 23, 2, Spring 1990, 29-44.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Walby, Catherine. The Visible Human Project: Informatic Bodies and Posthuman Medicine. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Tama Leaver:
Tama Leaver is writing a PhD in English, Communication and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia entitled “Artificialities: From Artificial Intelligence to Artificial People - Representations and Constructions of Identity and Embodiment in Contemporary Speculative Texts.” When not pondering overly long titles, his research interests include cultural studies, digital culture, science fiction, and contemporary film.  <tama@cyllene.uwa.edu.au>

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